Chapter 47

Customs, Rites, Folklore

 The Central Africans have a long tradition of customs , rites and folklore. Morals were very high, fidelity jealously guarded. Men had more than one wife, some many, all women to be married had a dowry, paid to their parents - seldom money, mostly in domestic animals, hoes, blankets (bark cloth), mats and food. The bridegroom collected his dowry from his father, his uncles (father's brothers) and even from his grandfather. The elderly, wise men - on the bride and groom's side - met, weighed up the prospects of the bride as to her size, weight, age, muscle power for hoeing a garden, cooking and child bearing. The groom, on his fitness, general intelligence in tribal affairs, the art of hunting and the number of brothers and uncles he had. The bride and groom did not court together - always from a distance. The marriage took place after the dowry was paid. The wedding was a simple ceremony, the couple meeting, then walking around the inside of the cattle kraal, viewed by the elderly men, the respective parents and friends.

From the moment of marriage the couple were prevented from speaking or seeing their respective parents-in-law. I have known one of my workers on a journey seeing his mother-in-law. He would immediately retrace his steps from where he started that day, wash under rushing water, then run to join others at work.

A man, to show his authority over his wife, would give her a good beating, otherwise the wife would become suspicious that her husband loved another woman. Husband and wife were closely tied to the children in love and the children respected their parents in every way. The only sad moment came when a wife gave birth to twins; it was the husband's duty to drag his wife and twins from the hut into the dense bush. If they survived twenty-four hours from the hazards of insects, snakes and wild animals, they were brought back - the evil was averted.

If a husband died, the wife became the property of her brother-in-law. If the wife died, the husband took as his wife, without ceremony or dowry, his late wife's sister.

When Africans became Christians, all the customs disappeared. If the man had two wives, the second one was given back to her parents with the dowry. Christian marriage was a very solemn occasion, entered into after mutual friendships with all concerned and devoid of all the taboos. Christian education brought many benefits to married couples, the home and family united in love.

To tribal Africans there are many rites and ritual, in many forms, which play a big part. People in a village do homage to the Headman. He keeps the peace, instructs on problems and is looked upon with respect. In a group of villages - from ten to one hundred - there is a chief. His word and findings are final. He always acts in conjunction with headmen. The chief takes a long time to reach a conclusion; he hears all the rights and wrongs of the case. Although not bound, he may call in the Witchdoctor, as to a type of punishment, even to the point of a poison ordeal, if a person is found guilty. I have sat through a trial and marvelled at the skill of the chief, listening with great patience to the evidence, arguments and detailed accounts from both sides. Nothing is written down, all is remembered. Deliberations over, the chief and his advisers retire and on resuming the case, pronounce their decision. Freedom or punishment begins at once.

There are special rites for initiation (coming of age); observation of rains; sowing; harvesting; eclipses of sun and moon; protection of property; outcasting of deformed and insane; rites concerning animals that are classed clean and unclean; purification by water from waterfalls and numerous rites associated with the dead and their burial. Some bodies are anointed before being wrapped up in a sleeping mat. There is only one entrance to a hut - a dead body is taken out by breaking a hole in the wall opposite the entrance. The graves vary according to the tribe. Some bodies face south or north or east or west. When a grave is dug, two dugouts are made, one side for the corpse, the other for clay pots filled with food, a spear, knife, hoe and axe. Some tribes bury the dead head down, feet up, in a narrow hole. Other tribes break all major bones of the dead before wrapping the body in mats and burying it deep.

The last person to die in a hut is buried in the hut. Pots of food are placed outside the hut entrance. A strict vigil is kept near the pots of food. The animal, large or small, that eats the food, also takes possession of the departed spirit. The hut is burned down and never used as a house again. The site demands a branch of a bark cloth tree to be planted as a symbol of veneration to the dead.

Special rites are observed in body markings: cutting slits over face and chest, rubbing in material like soot to give raised impressions, filing teeth, piercing ears, nose and lips for ornaments, trimming hair into tribal pleats. Each tribe observes its own rites. Many rites are universal, adhered to with reverence. Fast disappearing are the rites performed by Medicine Men and Witchdoctors. I have seen both at work, also Sorcerers. Each has a special sort of wizardry and magic dealings with spirits good and bad.

An African brought his young daughter to me one evening. She was in a state of collapse, trembling all over. Said the father

-      'Please, Bwana, destroy the evil spell cast on my child. The Witch doctor is one of your workers.'

After a lot of questioning, I got an inkling where the man was working.

The father whispered, 'In a small clearing, near the cemetery, "Mvars" has his booth, with many pots, dried animals and insects, magic waters and powders.'

Just as it was getting dark, with two faithful Christians I made my way to the isolated spot. As I moved through two thorny acacia bushes, I heard an uncanny, weird grunt. As I forced myself through the thorns, I got a glimpse of 'Mvars', the evil one. I grabbed a pot, threw it and it smashed on his back. Howling eerily, he disappeared into the bush. I kicked over small pots, smashed bigger ones, broke everything I could see, on posts, twigs and bamboo poles. I collected many strange looking things to take back to my office. My two companions looked on but said not a word until we were near home.

'Sir, many frightened Africans will sleep without fear tonight  - you have broken the spell.'

When I got back to the house, the man and his daughter, our house staff and a blind man who worked for me making string fishing nets, clapped their hands. They could not say 'Thanks'. Knowing custom, I wished all 'Goodnight, my friends'.

Next morning, as we were holding our act of worship before starting work, I spotted Mvars. I pulled off his shirt.

'See,' I said to all around. 'Mvars is marked by one of his own pots. He is a fake and a coward and a cheat.' No one spoke. I dismissed Mvars and on every face there was a smile of relief.

The African is a born singer. Words to suit the occasion are put to the familiar tunes. They have poems about births, marriage and death; about seasons and the heavenly bodies; poems about food, hunger, thirst and want; about work, play, hunting, fishing and many games; about love, hate, jealousy, fear and fates; poems about war and peace, slavery, torture and death by animals. The folklore is extensive and the tunes produced to suit the mood of the singer. Africans make their own musical instruments, the best known is the drum. On the drum, messages are sent throughout the land - a kind of Morse that is repeated by drummers for miles around. Bamboo recorders make fine sounds; string (gut) instruments reach high notes; gourds in various sizes have distinctive notes. At an African concert with instruments, singing and dancing the folklore of the past, comes to life.

The coming of the white man has changed the old ballads into pop-like utterances. The old folks keep reminding the young ones about the 'good old days' folklore, of famine, disease, tribal warfare, bush fires, animal hunting with spears and bow and arrows; lovely songs concerning great fish in the lake, huge animals roaming the mountains, monster birds into the air and giant snakes wallowing in the swamps that swallow people.

 

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This work, Going With God, is copywrited by Ronald R. Caseby, 1993.   All rights reserved.  Used here by express permission.